Blessed are the peacemakers ...

19 Nov 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 19 Nov 2021

Dr Maria Power

Catholic social teaching holds the key to sustaining the peace process and empowering marginalised communities in Northern Ireland, according to peace-building expert Dr Maria Power.  

Dr Power has recently started work on a project to show how applying these principles might strengthen the social contract between citizen and state post-conflict.

As part of this work toolkits will be provided to empower marginalised communities and help them influence public policy.

Dr Power is Senior Research Fellow in Human Dignity, Las Casas Institute for Social Justice at Blackfriars Hall and has written extensively about the role of faith-based organisations in peace-building.

She defines Catholic social teaching as “about ensuring that every human person lives a fulfilled life, a life of meaning that allows them to contribute to society and all contributions are seen as equal – the street cleaner is as important as the surgeon – they all contribute to making society work.”

And her definition of peace is that “a society can only be peaceful if there is no deprivation and everyone can contribute and has everything they need.”

The Las Casas Institute is named after Bartolomé de las Casas a sixteenth-century business entrepreneur in the Spanish Empire who, appalled by the suffering of indigenous peoples, became a Dominican friar and campaigned against genocide in the “new world”. He is regarded as the founder of human rights.

Dr Power said: “We carry on his mission by doing applied research for the betterment of society, recognising human dignity.”

She started her research in Northern Ireland 23 years ago with her PhD on the role of churches in the peace process, which she followed up with a book on the late Cardinal Cahal Daly and the way he used Catholic social teaching to challenge the conflict.

She said: “In many ways that transformed the way I looked at my research. I realised research was not just for other academics but something that could be utilised by the most marginalised in the community. We are publicly funded for what we do, and it is an immense privilege to be an academic, but I wanted to do something for the betterment of society – for the common good.

“Daly was using Catholic social teaching to critique all the actors not just the IRA but also the British state which had destroyed the working class through its policies – like building tower blocks that crumbled and by education systems that left people behind. So when I went to Blackfriars  I needed to work on a project that would encapsulate the common good. And having expertise in Northern Ireland I wanted to do the work in Northern Ireland.”

A foundational principle for Dr Power is empowerment – people do need to be helped, but they also need to be given agency. She is working on two toolkits aimed to achieve this, one she calls solidarity, the other subsidiarity.

She explains: “Solidarity is based on the idea that everybody is our neighbour and we need to look out for one another, including looking out for someone we might not like - think of the Good Samaritan - that’s solidarity.”

“Subsidiarity means that decision-making should be made at the lowest point possible. So that, for example,  the person living in a house with condensation and black mould needs to be allowed to take part in conversation about their future housing needs.”

She wants this toolkit to “guide people gently through policy making process and advocating for themselves because I know that in Northern Ireland there are people who set themselves up as advocates and don’t necessarily have the best interests of the community at heart.”

For churches in more affluent areas to express solidarity means: “it’s not enough to be giving money or cans of beans to food banks,  give some of your skills as well to help the community.

Dr Power explains that often in wealthy communities people need help to understand that they have relevant skills. “They can seem to be paralysed. They want to help but don’t want to be seen as condescending or doing something to people. In my own small way I will try to guide them into understanding how they can help transform communities in a practical way, beyond £20 in the basket on Sunday.”

She gives the example of a campaign in her own part of north London where the community got together to successfully oppose plans to build 1,000 new homes on car parks next to tube stations – a development which would have blocked usage of the Underground for disabled people, created a safety issue for women, and increased pollution in an area which did not have the infrastructure to cope with the new development. It was the presence of a planner on the campaign team who made the difference. His forensic skills in examining the plans revealed the presence of an electricity sub-station on the site, which killed off the development.

Dr Power has not found Catholic social teaching a barrier in developing her work. “It is the only good thing the church has at the moment,” she smiles. “I’ve a few things going for me. I’m a woman and people know I’m an oppressed minority in the church – and that makes people stop and think!”

“The other thing is that Catholic social teaching is really popular within Protestant churches. It is grounded in the Bible and the mainline and evangelical churches can see it comes from the foundations of their faith and therefore useful and good.”

It is also attractive to secular radicals.

“A lot of the concepts are ones you find in socialism and Marxism - the idea of giving voice to the voiceless, solidarity, restructuring globalised economic structures and in its criticism of neo-liberalism and greed.”

In Northern Ireland she is already partnering with an evangelical church.

“I have noticed the Protestant evangelical churches doing the quiet work of community transformation and helping people to  better their communities and, for example, campaigning against Universal Credit cuts.”

She has observed evangelicals helping people to make the transition from homelessness to living in a house.  “People would think problems are solved when you get a home. But its then that problems are beginning – they need a friend to talk to who would be kind and gentle and maybe go to the Post Office with them to pay bills, and sit down and help them to make a budget etc. Evangelicals are doing this. It is what they do.”

So her task is to work with churches to develop the solidarity toolkit and then work with them to disseminate it.

“I’m not sure what this will look like yet, she says, “but I’ve never been a fan of where someone gets up after church with a sob story.”

 To date she has conducted around 30 interviews with subjects ranging from policy-makers to community-development workers and says she is very keen to learn from secular practice that can feed into her work.

The project will last three years, with toolkits scheduled for completion by the end of next year. This will be followed by a book about community transformation in Northern Ireland.

She said: “Northern Ireland is streets ahead (of England) in terms of community engagement, and the transformation and development of communities and there are many eager to learn lessons from it.”

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